Europeans extradited for trial in the United States would be safe from the death penalty, or even life in prison, if the European Union gets its way in a crime-fighting pact it is about to negotiate with Washington.
A broad mandate for the Spanish and, from July, Danish EU presidencies to start talks with the Bush administration on a first-ever transatlantic agreement on judicial cooperation in criminal matters was agreed on April 26 by EU justice and interior ministers.
The decision in Luxembourg came just six days before a semi-annual EU-U.S. summit in Washington, where closer cooperation in the fight against global terrorism will be a top item for discussion.
"This mandate is built on the basis of existing bilateral agreements" that most of the EU member states already have with the United States on judicial cooperation and extraditions, Spanish Justice Minister Angel Acebes told reporters.
"The idea is to end up with an agreement (between the European Union and the United States) that really gives added value," he said.
Though its contents are confidential, EU officials said the negotiating mandate includes a bottom line that reflects Europe's general ban on executions as a means of punishing crimes.
"The prime objective of the EU shall be to insert a provision (into the agreement) prohibiting both the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty," the mandate states, according to one official who had seen it.
The EU also wants a guarantee that suspects who are extradited to the United States from an EU member state where life imprisonment does not exist will not face the prospect of a life sentence in a U.S. jail.
Such a clause would accommodate Portugal, where the criminal code does not allow for prison terms longer than 20 years.
Acebes played down the danger of either condition being a major stumbling block. He pointed out that the death penalty provision can already be found in many of the bilateral agreements.
"In judicial cooperation, it would be a political statement" rather than a real sea-change in the way that European and U.S. police and prosecutors already work closely together every day, another EU official said.
But a European diplomat acknowledged that the death penalty demand was sure to meet stiff resistance at the negotiating table, to which Washington will be bringing its own wish list.
"We're looking forward to seeing the details of the EU negotiating mandate," a U.S. official said.
"Our discussions on issues of external and other areas of mutual legal assistance have increased dramatically (since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington) and they are continuing," he said.
The European Union rallied to support the United States after the deadly strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, though relations have soured in recent weeks over trade and global warming.
Beyond concerns about the death penalty, officials said the EU would also be asking the United States for clearly defined guidelines on how shared information is to be used.
They also want the agreement to be a useful tool not only for tackling armed extremism but also to crack down on financial crimes and border-flaunting criminal organizations.
The agreement would also have to accommodate the fact that four EU countries – Germany, Austria, Portugal and Greece – do not allow the extradition of their own nationals.
Officials said that hurdle could be circumvented if Washington agrees that suspects from those countries be tried in a U.S. court, then sent back home to serve out their punishment.